On January 29th, James Clapper, Director of National Intelligence, released a statement saying “We judge that some elements of Syria’s biological warfare program might have advanced beyond the research and development stage and might be capable of limited agent production, based on the duration of its longstanding program.” This news appeared to have shocked a number of Western agencies and shed new light onto what was viewed as a hitherto undisclosed Syrian capability. However, this announcement should come as no surprise, after all biological weapons are the oldest form of WMD and often referred to as the “poor man’s nuke.” The UN agreement, drawn up in October, to remove Assad’s weapons of mass destruction and the subsequent Syrian declaration were both notably light on any mention of biological weapons, despite a report in 2007 indicating that Syria possessed a number of Category A pathogens, including Anthrax, Plague, Tularemia, Botulinium, Smallpox, Aflotoxin, Cholera, Ricin and Camelpox. Syria’s Biological Weapons (BW) program, centered at the technically advanced Scientific Studies and Research Centre (SSRC) near Damascus, has–as in many other nations–its origins in the pharmaceutical and agricultural sectors. Pre-war Syria provided 90% of the pharmaceuticals in the region.
From James Clapper’s statement, it would appear that the US views the Syrian Biological Weapons program as having successfully achieved this process (of weaponization) and developed a viable delivery means, most probably as an aerosol, for its biological agents. Therefore, the answer to the question about whether Syria possesses a legitimate BW program is almost certainly yes, but the real question should be what capability remains after airstrikes and two years of civil war. The final piece to the puzzle is how secure have these sites been over the past two years? Biological agents are relatively easily identified, once deployed and symptoms begin to develop. However, when in transit they are much more difficult to detect than chemical or radiological material. This difficulty in detection, coupled with the lack of internal security in Syria, presents a credible risk of biological proliferation from extremist groups. These groups, through existing networks and knowledge, are more than capable of collecting and moving biological agents across international borders and delivering them, through improvised means, as a terror weapon; this a long aspired goal of Al Qaeda. // Hamish de Bretton-Gordon
Skin Reaction to Anthrax (photo: United States Army)